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Consumers Have the Best Bull$#!* Meters: Authenticity and Story in Brand Names

By Zachary Vickers

Recently, Weight Watchers announced they would be known as “WW.” Armed with a new tagline, “Wellness that Works,” the 65 year-old company made a bold and strategic pivot to become a wellness-focused organization that aligns with the modern embrace of self-care and body positivity. In the process, they’ve scrubbed their messaging of terms like “dieting,” which has garnered a more negative connotation in recent years.

The decision comes from a shift in perspective. A 2016 Gallup poll showed that fewer people actively want to lose weight — and while the obesity rate is among its highest ever, fewer people describe themselves as “overweight.”

With more companies like Dove pushing back against dated definitions of beauty and wellness, consumers today don’t necessarily see their weight as a superficial problem, but rather proudly celebrate it as one of the many parts of their individuality. Companies like Weight Watchers — who hitched their business model on poor body image, self-consciousness, or “show them the flaw, sell them the cure” — must transform in order to survive. The only way to do it is to tell a brand story that authentically speaks to new purpose in the company, and all that starts with the name: the title of said story.

Weight Watchers or WW did just that — they transformed their name, their culture, and their message through a compelling story.

Critics were initially skeptical of the move, calling Weight Watchers’ transition nothing more than “diet culture in disguise.” Such a change could easily be considered facetious and inauthentic if purely cosmetic — a blatant attempt to capitalize on the latest trend. Companies have fallen prey again and again to this rushed and ill-considered approach. At first glance, WW just seemed like one more to add to that list.

Changing a household name is riskier, as there is potential of increasingly diminished brand equity. When Kentucky Fried Chicken abbreviated their name to KFC in 1991 to remove “Fried” from their consumer’s vocabulary, the brand subsequently lost valuable name recognition and needed to start from scratch. However, by rooting a rebrand and renaming in a compelling story that puts the customer — the story’s hero — first, companies can authentically align with popular trends while investing in the future.

WW didn’t merely slim down their name and opt for a superficial acronym to deter from the “diet” negativity; they invested their purpose in an emotional narrative arc. No longer do they pitch quick weight-loss solutions, or market with Before/After photographs of members, which sent a message that equated thinness to healthiness.

Now, WW has revised their signature points system to account for each individual’s height, weight, sex, and activity; they’ve partnered with the meditation app Headspace and launched “Connect Groups” to connect like-minded and like-needed members, like those who are gluten-free. They’ve also developed new cookbooks and have removed artificial sweeteners, coloring, flavoring, and preservatives from their food items. All of these moves represented inherent and fundamental changes to their product and service.

Though some may be left confused by the abbreviation (Is it short for Weight Watchers or the new “Wellness that Works” slogan?) and question what it means for the company’s direction, the answer lies in their story. Weight Watchers was never about diet shaming, despite current stigmas around dieting culture. Rather, they have always been about community and encouraging each other toward a healthier sense of self — founder Jean Nidetch envisioned weight loss as being easier when like-minded people can share tips and support.

Therefore, the story of WW hasn’t changed. It has just become more emotionally invested in their members, opening up their philosophy to anyone who may not believe that thinness is healthiness or happiness. While our definitions of beauty have shifted over time, the core of WW’s story hasn’t. If “WW” feels directionless, perhaps the directionless is the direction — perhaps the open-endedness of the meaning of “WW” is both an anchor to the Weight Watchers history while also striving to be more accessible: members are empowered to choose their own direction, define their own healthiness, and live their best life.

The name change to WW goes beyond the cosmetic. They’ve changed the very culture of the business from one focused on aspirational dieting solutions to a holistic and realistic investment in the way that everyone lives, embracing an approach that empowers each member to live their healthiest life. As their new vision statement explains, WW aims to “create a world where wellness is accessible to all, not just the few.”

“The consumer bulls[#!*] meter couldn’t be higher,” said Kevin Hochman, KFC’s Chief Marketing Officer. “They know when you’re being authentic and true.”

While an empowering story, authentically told, can connect a company with its audience across the obstacles of temporary fads and trends and shifting perspectives, it’s a tricky tightrope to walk. Any move that contradicts a company’s core brand story can be just as equally detrimental.

In 2009, Radio Shack rebranded themselves as “The Shack” in an attempt to maintain market share dwindling in the age of Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and cellular retail stores. The new name (dropping “Radio” to distance the association with outdated technology) was meant to evoke relevancy and “coolness,” and draw in new and former customers. But this short-sighted rebrand showed a lack of focus on the company’s story — to provide customers with comprehensive answers in a world increasingly inundated with technology.

While The Shack was perhaps superficially more relevant, no other aspect of the company changed. They still offered the same products. Customers saw no real change other than the name itself. Radio Shack failed to communicate their story in the way that competitor Best Buy has to turn customers into brand evangelists. Best Buy’s story is to empower customers to make the best choice for their lives through convenience and expert staff, from consultation to purchase to installation to service. If technology is designed to improve the life of the customer, Best Buy improves your technology retail experience, from finding the right product through large stocks of items at affordable prices and friendly knowledgeable staff to maintaining that product through their Geek Squad on-site tech support.

Best Buy’s recent rebrand, for example, simply modernized their logo by reprioritizing all of the visual elements, and therefore avoided sacrificing brand equity. “Telling the story of our people — and how we make a meaningful impact on customers’ lives — is at the heart of this work,” Best Buy Chief Marketing Officer Whit Alexander said. “The core of what differentiates Best Buy vs. everyone else — and makes us awesome for customers — is that we understand your unique needs and how tech can enhance your life.”

Radio Shack’s inauthentic rebrand failed to develop the “cult-like” following with their customers they were looking for because it did not align with their brand story — that in this broken world deluged with new technology and large retailers that place convenience and price over expertise, Radio Shack was the only choice because they offered “qualified sales staff to help customers get the most from your technology products.”

The brief stint as “The Shack” did more harm than good by shucking what little brand equity the company had left in their loyal base. After several more years of significant financial loss and layoffs, Radio Shack filed for bankruptcy in 2015, and again in 2017.

More recently, Dunkin’ Donuts dropped the second D in a rebrand that included a new design, digital ordering kiosks, and nitro-infused cold brew on tap.

“Our new branding is one of many things we are doing as part of our blueprint for growth to modernize the Dunkin’ experience for our customers,” said Dunkin’ Brands CEO David Hoffmann. “[W]e are working to provide our guests with great beverages, delicious food and unparalleled convenience.”

Dunkin’s brand story is one rooted in fast and convenient offerings of food (including donuts) and beverages. Their new digital ordering kiosks align with that story. However, even though the abbreviated name may also reiterate speedy service, as FedEx’s name similarly conveys, the change is one that hurts the brand’s equity, as it undermines what consumers think of first — the second “D.” The change has since left many consumers confused and irritated:

They literally invented the word “Donut.” They should keep it forever.

– tweet by @larocciDave

Hold up, Dunkin Donuts drops the donut in their name? The real questions is, do you still sell donuts though?

– tweet by @BigballerDee

Even back when Dunkin Donuts was originally called Mister Donut, it retained the “donut.” Keeping the donuts in the name keeps the franchise accountable for making good donuts, as those are the focus! Maybe.

– tweet by @cryptolectic

“For two years, we have been focused on evolving Dunkin’ into the premier, beverage-led, on-the go-brand,” said Hoffman. While the data may support this decision (approximately 60 percent of Dunkin’s sales are from their drink offerings) the data does not weight the value of brand equity when it comes to the name.

Not to suggest that Hoffman shouldn’t invest in additional coffee offerings and opportunities. Sales do not lie — but they also don’t tell the whole story. By dropping “Donuts,” Dunkin’ has betrayed consumer trust by walking down a path that seems to veer in the opposite direction of what their consumers love about the brand, regardless of sales.

A new name is just as capable of taking a wayward brand and aligning it instantaneously. In 1902, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company began as a mineral mining venture in corundum, but quickly fizzled out when their mines contained only anorthosite. For decades, the company operated under this clunky name while doing no mining at all — in fact the company operated (and continues to) in industry, health care, and consumer goods, and is responsible for making thousands of products like Post-its and Scotch Tape.

In the 1950s, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company debuted a simplified logo that discarded the increasingly irrelevant name for “3M,” a rebranding that has famously accommodated the company’s growth into an innovative, $60 billion multinational company. Would 3M have achieved this level of success if they had remained the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company?

“3M” is still rooted in their history, including their first exclusive and lucrative product, a kind of sandpaper/abrasive cloth sheet, dubbed “Three-M-ite,” that posted the company’s first dividend. But the original name misrepresented the company’s actual operations, as well as their story as a global researcher and innovator.

Additionally, each “M” could stand for “Mistake,” as three of its milestones and innovations revolve around accidents — the original mines, the “Three-M-ite,” and a pressure-sensitive adhesive agent, Acrylate Copolymer Microspheres, that led to the Post-it note. This aligns with the company’s story: “But our success and longevity were not apparent from the start. We tried. We failed. We tried something new. Repeat cycle. Innovation and perseverance drove our founders, and it continues to drive 3Mers today.”

A name is not a catchy, cosmetic accessory — it’s the title of each company’s brand story. A brand’s name should never contradict, misrepresent, or test the consumer’s bull$#!* meter. Rather, the company’s name should reflect their position as a mentor whose magical gift of a product or service empowers consumers — the hero of their story — to solve their inherent need or problem and therefore conquer their broken world.

Zachary Vickers is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.